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First coronavirus, then an inferno: How schools in the East Troublesome fire’s path are scrambling to keep their students learning

Districts are pondering distance learning after many students and teachers were forced to evacuate because of the East Troublesome fire. But officials know education will take a backseat to the crises.

The East Troublesome Fire near Granby on Oct. 21, 2020. (Eli Pace, Sky-Hi News)
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Most of East Grand School District’s 1,300 students have been back in school full time since the end of August, but now, with Colorado’s second-largest wildfire threatening Granby, their classes are in limbo as many teachers and students evacuate.

Superintendent Frank Reeves, who was fleeing to Greeley with his wife on Thursday afternoon, anticipates that for many students, “school will be the last thing on their mind,” particularly as some students and staff members have lost their homes.

Others don’t yet know if their homes are intact with the East Troublesome fire having torched 170,000 acres by Thursday night.

Reeves said the district’s entire team of administrators is evacuating to places from Greeley to Grand Junction. They’ll regroup on Friday morning — virtually — to determine a game plan for the weekend and possibly next week, though Reeves noted that he’s not sure they’ll know much more about how to proceed next week.

“Will we go to distance learning? Most likely,” he said. “But we’ll just have to see what happens.”

The district, which operates on a four-day week, canceled school on Thursday and doesn’t yet have plans in place for instruction on Monday. Estes Park School District R-3 is facing the same uncertainty, with the district’s 1,050 students and its staff under mandatory evacuation on Thursday. It’s not yet clear how or when classes will resume for either district.

MORE: “Lots of structure loss” after East Troublesome fire’s explosion into Grand Lake, but changing weather slows march toward Estes Park

Superintendent Sheldon Rosenkrance said Estes Park School District has the capability to transition to remote learning. All students and teachers are equipped with devices, but he’s not sure how fast teachers could get courses up and running.

Estes Park students started the school year remotely and, barely a month ago, began phasing in in-person learning until its schools were back at full capacity. Now, those plans are thwarted, and academics are secondary to making sure students are secure and have what they need.

Evacuees flee the East Troublesome Fire in Granby, Colorado, on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. (Eli Pace, Sky-Hi News)

“We just try to meet the basic needs to start with and make sure that they’re safe and give them the support that we can with our staff and connect them with resources,” Rosenkrance said. 

He will focus on reaching out to staff on Friday to determine where people are and whether they’re safe and will also try to find as many kids as possible. Rosenkrance said staff members are trying to make contact with students through email, though some kids may not have any internet access and others may be too busy to log online. 

Over the weekend, depending on conditions in Estes Park, the five-day district will have to make some decisions for next week. In the meantime, Rosenkrance has evacuated to his daughter’s home in Greeley, where he’s waiting for updates from Estes Park. He wants to head back as soon as possible but knows his return will depend on all kinds of factors, including how long the area is out of electricity.

“Like an explosion”

The past 24 hours have weighed emotionally on Reeves, who was already reeling from a stressful start to the school year in the thick of the pandemic. His first priority on Thursday, alongside his staff, centered on trying to figure out how to ensure all of the district’s students were accounted for and safe. 

The administration team met on Thursday morning and had planned to provide counseling services as well as food to families and anyone in need in Grand County. But the fires moved too quickly for them to put their plan into action. When Granby went under pre-evacuation at about 11 a.m., the district had to send staff home, Reeves said.

By the time staff organized contact numbers and mailing lists according to evacuation areas to reach students, they had to start evacuating out of Granby, Reeves said.

The district likely won’t be able to locate all students until noon on Friday, he said.

Fortunately, he added, his team has not heard of anyone trapped or hurt in the fire, “so thank God for that.”

East Grand School District’s four school buildings are currently safe, Reeves said. Three of the buildings — an elementary school and the district’s middle and high schools — are in Granby. Another elementary school in Fraser is “not in any danger yet,” he said.

And he anticipates that his own home, which is located just to the south of Granby, will be spared, though he knows there’s no guarantee, especially with how fast flames have overtaken Grand Lake.

Rosenkrance’s home is also safe from the fires, and he isn’t aware of anyone in the school community who has lost their home. The district’s three school buildings, still standing, are in a pretty secure place. Estes Park High School is currently housing a projected 150 firefighters, he said.

Evacuees flee the East Troublesome Fire in Granby, Colorado, on Oct. 21, 2020. (Eli Pace, Sky-Hi News)

He’s leaning on his staff members to navigate the added challenges and uncertainty the wildfires have created.

“That’s really the magic,” Rosenkrance said, “having everybody on the whole team working together.”

The experience has been a surreal one for Reeves.

“I don’t think anyone can explain it,” he said Thursday. “The pictures last night are so dramatic, but that’s what it was like.”

At 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, he recalls “a normal fire.” But by 6:15 p.m., “it was like an explosion happened over 20 miles,” he said.

“It was really scary,” he said, his voice breaking with emotion.

MORE: Read more education coverage from The Colorado Sun.

Reeves, who will stay at his daughter’s Greeley home for the next few days, is especially worried about how his students will fare while grappling with both the wildfires and the ongoing pandemic.

“There’s so many issues that go along with COVID, and then we throw kids who are evacuated or homeless into the mix, and it’s going to be a challenge to reopen very soon, I think,” he said. “We may be able to pivot to a distance learning plan” with the understanding that many kids won’t be able to prioritize school for a while.

“It becomes an equity issue (for students),” Reeves added. “There’s just so much going on.”

Despite all the destruction, he said, he’s in awe of his staff, community and first responders as they came together to evacuate residents and animals and as they stepped up on Thursday to support people who have had to evacuate and those who have lost homes.

“Our community,” Reeves said, “is an awesome place.”


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